Subterranean-development blues

An 1860s storefront underneath a downtown sidewalk.

An 1860s storefront underneath a downtown sidewalk.

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Many have heard of them, few have seen them. But the legendary underground sidewalks of Sacramento are a little bit closer to getting some recognition—and some protection.

That’s because the city is finally beginning a systematic survey of what remains of Sacramento’s historic catacombs. Better late than never.

Back in the 1860s, flood-prone Sacramento—faced with the threat that the state Capitol would relocate to San Francisco—decided to raise the city’s streets about 10 feet. Some buildings got raised along with the streets, some didn’t, and the end result was a network of subterranean walkways and building facades. The downtown-below-ground in turn spawned a century of ghost stories and tales of opium dens, bandit lairs and teenaged Morlock debauchery—some of them probably true (see “The past below”; July 17, 2003).

But over the decades, development and neglect have destroyed much of the underground. Preservationists and history buffs have pushed for years to have some piece of the historic walkways saved—but there’s been little coordination.

“Everybody talks about the underground sidewalks, but nobody really knows what’s down there,” says city planner Kathleen Forrest, who is helping head up the survey for the city.

In fact, Bites knows a little about what’s down there. There’s a beautifully intact corner at Eighth and J streets, with an old water cistern and the arched windows of a long-forgotten storefront. It would be a shame to lose that piece, so hopefully it will show up on the survey when it’s complete.

But some property owners aren’t cooperating, and won’t let the survey crew take stock of their underground space. It seems some landlords worry that historically significant tunnels will foul up future skyscraper plans. Bites feels for them, really, but thinks that may be a bit shortsighted.

“I think it ultimately could be a tremendous attraction. It could be a real tourism and revenue generator for the city of Sacramento,” says Fred Turner, with the Capital City Preservation Trust. The trust is pitching in $6,000 of the $24,000 that the survey is going to cost.

Turner has been on several tours of similar spaces in Seattle, which also raised some of its streets around the turn of the last century. He figures the underground tours of Seattle are generating $1 million to $3 million a year.

“I think the sidewalks I’ve seen in Sacramento could easily compete with those in Seattle,” says Turner.

For several months now, Bites has been grimly tracking the exodus of good reporters and editors from 21st and Q streets. Last week brought the sad news that editorial writer Stuart Leavenworth is splitting from The Sacramento Bee.

To make pasta.

The good news is that he’s probably coming back. Leavenworth is taking a six- to 12-month leave of absence from the Bee to accept a gig as an apprentice chef at Oliveto, a well-known Italian restaurant in Oakland.

Since Bites spent several years trying to get out of the food business and into journalism, the question had to be asked: “Stuart, what the hell are you doing?”

“I need to take a sabbatical, and I need to take some risks and explore some things I’m interested in other than daily journalism,” Leavenworth told Bites. Leavenworth is a foodie, and Oliveto has a long history of advancing the local food movement. Plus, the chef is a friend, so when his bosses at the hive actually granted him the leave, Leavenworth decided to go for it.

He has been working in daily journalism since 1983, and with the wrenching changes in the newspaper industry in general and the Bee in particular, it seemed like a good time to step back and reflect.

“It’s a lucky opportunity, and I’m going to chase it for a while.”